Bees in the bonnet: How a mobile insect circus has started to take over one couple's lives

Retro kitsch fills their Victorian cottage – but even more intriguing is their home from home...

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The Independent Online

Their house is stuffed to the gills with retro posters, colourful furniture, stacks of crockery and characterful figurines. But, Sarah Munro explains, when she moved 20 years ago to the Victorian cottage in Great Livermere, a village in Suffolk, with her partner Mark Copeland they didn't have a bean between them. One treasured item began their magpie-like approach to decorating: a Catholic-kitsch Madonna that still stands in the corner of the kitchen.

"When we first lived together we had no possessions and no more than £20 – and we went to local auction to buy a vacuum cleaner and a fridge with that," she says. "I bid on [the statue] in a rash way – I was at art college, doing a dissertation on female energy in art and religion, and I thought she might bring me luck! We won her for £16, and got a fridge and Hoover for £2 each; we still have the Hoover..."

Their home has since filled with finds from car-boot sales and junk shops. "It's to do with being creative – anything might be useful," she says of their approach to home décor. "We'll hold on to something for 10 years in a shed and then Mark will suddenly go, 'Aha! That's what I need!' k

Copeland's background is as an artist and model-maker – the headboard on their bed came from a prop sale at the end of the filming of the BBC's fantastical Gormenghast, for which Copeland was part of the Bafta-winning design team. But when work dried up, thanks to the arrival of computer modelling, his career took an unexpected turn.

Hitting on the idea of a travelling gallery for his paintings, it struck him that a museum, in which artefacts remain fixed and he could charge for entry rather than a sale, could work. Having completed a series of paintings about an imaginary circus in which the animals were insects, Copeland extended his vision, filling a converted horsebox with the fictional history of the Insect Circus. The museum was duly packed with pseudo-historical ephemera, from costumes and posters to little peep shows, with mechanical models of insects doing circus tricks.

It's fair to say that the circus has taken over their lives. Not just because the museum's ephemera also adorns their walls, but also because after the launch in 2004, Munro and Copeland soon found themselves owners of a real circus.

"At Glastonbury that first year, a couple of women came up to us and said, 'We're joining you!' They were determined to be insect performers," says Munro. And so the fantasy became flesh. By March 2006 they had a sell-out show in Hoxton Hall, east London, with traditional animal circus acts performed by people dressed as insects – the idea, however bizarre, captured the public's imagination. Munro chalks it up to the fact that they recapture the thrill of an old-fashioned animal circus: there's a correlation between, say, a lion and wasp (indeed, wasp-taming is one of their most popular acts).

As well as making props and costumes, Munro and Copeland found themselves appearing inside the world they hadcreated: Copeland as the ringmaster; Munro – who was previously a teacher – as a variety of creepy crawlies (her speciality is a disappearing earwig).

They spend much of the year on the road, and are shortly off to Blackpool's Showzam! circus festival, and the Roundhouse London's CircusFest in April. But for this couple, life in a travelling insect circus is really just another home from home.

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